In the twentieth episode of the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang tries to find a way out of the spirit world as Admiral Zhao schemes to definitively tip the war towards the Fire Nation. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Avatar.
WHAT THE FUCK DID I JUST WATCH
Holy god, holy god I was so ridiculously unprepared for the season one finale.
First off, I want to say that the huge leaps in drama in plotting that this story took in its final twenty-four minutes of season one have left me wrought with excitement and anticipation. If Avatar can do such disturbing and monumental things in its first season, then that means it can only get realer from here on out. Of course, a lot of this I’ll deal with later, but “The Siege of the North, Part II” went places I could have never expected, and it made the story all the better.
Now, I realize this all aired as one episode, but it actually works remarkably well as two separate pieces, especially since there’s a huge tonal shift in the story for this second part. While the pieces were all set up in the first half, our hearts filled with dread, “Part II” is about how the people who have gathered at the North Pole all come to realize exactly what sort of force the Avatar is.
And we’ll get there (I promise!), but I wanted to jump right into the absolute mind-fuck that was the scenes inside the spirit world. I know that there are two seasons left and surely the show will take us there again, but I could spend years exploring the spirit world. I’ve said time and time again that I’m a huge fan of world-building in fiction (LOVE YOU FRINGE), and the few moments we’ve gotten in the spirit world are so lush with detail and intrigue that I’m never content at all to leave that place. What makes it so fascinating to me is how often the writers drop all of these ridiculous details and make no attempts to even remotely try and give us any context for what they are. Who the hell was that first spirit that kind of looked like half-human, half-monkey? It doesn’t even matter, really, because it’s all about creating this place in our heads so that we begin to understand just how weird it all is.
Aang’s goal when he went to the spirit world was to locate the Moon and Ocean spirits, and this is precisely why what would soon would happen was so completely unbelievable and shocking. But, before we get there, more weirdness! Like that speck of light that, again, is completely unexplained. Aang follows it because the weird spirit dude tells him to. That’s it. It’s only after Aang “catches” it that the branch he is standing on disappears (WHY) and he lands in the water below. And that is when Avatar Roku appears to Aang! And this is wonderful! And this will certainly help Aang! Roku says that all Aang has to do is visit a spirit named Koh, who will tell him where the two spirits are!
I mean, there is just one small catch: Long ago, those two spirits entered the mortal world, and there’s only one spirit left in this world that is old enough to remember what bodies those spirits chose, which is why Aang must visit Koh. Makes sense, right?
Oh, right, there’s just one other detail that is quite important:
KOH CAN STEAL YOUR FUCKING FACE IF YOU SHOW ANY SORT OF EMOTION
WHAT THE HOLY LIVING HELL. HOW DID:
- That EVER get approved to show to vulnerable children
- That EVER appear in someone’s brain and they thought it would be an awesome thought to share with the world
- I AM NEVER GOING TO BE OK AFTER THIS.
I don’t necessarily scare easy, I’ll admit. Things might make be jump, or they might creep me out, but I’ve seen so many horror films over the years that I’m a bit desensitized to things that actually frighten me. And I’m making that distinction here because being disturbed and being creeped out are both not the same as each other and nowhere near the sensation of actual fear. I’m willing to concede that everyone else may have read the scene in Koh’s cave as kind of funny or weird, as I’m new to this fandom, so I don’t know what the general consensus is on a lot of this stuff.
Despite that, I will show no hesitation to share the fact that not only is the scene between Koh and Aang one of the coolest things I’ve seen in Avatar, but it quite literally made me curl up in terror on my couch as I watched it. I can’t quite place what it is about Koh that horrifies me so uniquely. Actually, hell, that sounds fun to think about way too much anyway. THIS IS WHAT I DO! But I think it’s a combination of movement and the constantly shifting facial identity that does me in far too much. I’m not afraid of snakes or anything, but it’s the smooth way that Koh moves up on Aang that first set off all of my alarms. If anything though, the fact that Koh changes faces to reveal all of the creatures whose face he stole is what just unnerves me until the end of time. It’s a constant reminder to anyone that THIS COULD BE YOU AS WELL.
Aang, you have far more willpower than I would in such a situation.
But “The Siege of the North, Part II” is not just about this fantastic journey of Aang, and the writers do a great job at balancing this, Zuko’s story, and what’s happening at the Northern Water Tribe. Not one of these plot strings is ignored and I was impressed how rich and dense this all felt, despite that they only had twenty-five minutes to pull it all off. As Aang is learning the identity of the Moon and Ocean spirits, we’re completely shocked by Admiral Zhao admitting to Iroh that he already knows who they are. (Hence his comment in “Part I” that he had a solution to the moon problem.) I love the tension that this creates for us, especially as we think we know what’s going to happen. We know that the yin and yang fish in the pond in the oasis inside the Northern Water Tribe’s city are the mortal bodies of the Moon and Ocean spirits, and surely this means that somehow, Aang is going to make it back to that pond and save the fish from destruction, right?
Meanwhile, Zuko’s fantastic introspection inside the cave during that ill-timed blizzard is a great bit of character development for him. The writers draw a parallel here, spoken through Zuko, as Zuko vocalizes that the Avatar has given him so much trouble in such a short time. It’s unspoken, but I couldn’t help but think of how Zuko knew that Aang was his sign of hope, his chance to possibly mend things with his father and his community. What Zuko does state, though, is that Aang reminds him of his much more successful sister.
Wait. What???? Zuko has a fucking sister????? WHAT THE HELL.
Oh, Avatar, how I love you.
For the last 1,200 words or so, I’ve been spending time discussing these set-up plots because I’ve been struggling to think of the word I think that best describes exactly what the last ten minutes or so represent to me. With such a diverse and large cast, I did not expect the scene inside that oasis: every single major character is in one place at once.
That word is convergence. This finale could have ended the show. That’s how huge it felt. (Ok, I would have been pissed had it ended it here, but you get what I mean.) I think part of it is that I am irrationally of the thought that Zuko and Iroh could one day join up with Team Avatar, which makes NO SENSE at this point at all, and I just want them to get along, okay, because I like them all and I don’t want them to fight and I want Aang to bake little cookies that look like Appa is that so much to ask
But as a way to show us just how intensely serious this is, Aang does not arrive at the pond with the Moon and Ocean spirits. In fact, Admiral Zhoa snatches the white koi from the water and the sky turns blood red, whereupon I realized I’d reached that point of no return. Even when Aang shows up, I now realized just how badly Admiral Zhoa wanted to crush the Northern Water Tribe: He was willing to sacrifice the moon, which his people needed to both continue to fight this war and to survive. Yes, it’s an irrational act that is incredibly short-sighted and awful, but I also can’t ignore that it is a demonstration of desperation.
Aang pleads with Zhao, trying to get him to see how this will adversely affect everyone and then UNCLE IROH TO THE RESCUE. Oh my god, to see him act with such fury and anger is so wonderful, especially because he is well aware of the dire consequences of fooling around with the spirit world. His warning of unleashing a force “ten-fold” of what Zhao uses seems to work, as Zhao places the koi back in the pond, but then HE BURNS THE FISH TO DEATH ANYWAY.
Complete and utter fucking shock. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? oh my god, the moon disappears and then the entire episode turns completely gray and if it weren’t so disturbing, this would be downright beautiful. BUT HE KILLS THE MOON SPIRIT AND THERE IS A LUNAR ECLIPSE BECAUSE THE MOON DOES NOT HOLD THE SAME POWER OVER THE WORLD ANYMORE. As the water benders lose their power, Uncle Iroh steps into action, enraged by Zhao’s foolish decision, and we all become ENTIRELY TERRIFIED by Iroh as a vicious badass. He takes town all of Zhao’s guards in like THIRTY SECONDS. We’re so used to seeing Iroh in such a calm state that his lashing out is mesmerizing.
As Zhao escapes and Zuko disappears (clearly to chase after the man who tried to assassinate him), Iroh pulls the Moon spirit’s body out of the oasis pond and Yue remarks that all hope has been lost. And holy god, Aang immediately replies, “NO, IT IS NOT!” and enters the Avatar state and then WALKS INTO THE GODDAMN OASIS AND MERGES WITH THE OCEAN SPIRIT. My jaw sat on the floor as Aang became the spiritual representation of the Ocean spirit and is a gigantic koi fish and it is both one of the most frightening and awe-inspiring things just simply EVER. My god, I could not believe what I was watching.
Everything seems to happen so fast at this point in the story, but that’s not because of poor pacing or anything. There’s just so much that happens in such a small scope of time that it was hard to catch it all. As Aang wrecks the Fire Nation army as a giant koi spirit, Princess Yue reveals her true history: she is intrinsically tied to the Moon spirit, since she nearly died as a baby and her parents prayed to the Moon spirit to save her. Save her it did, hence the white hair, and now Yue feels obligated to return the favor. Which is now why I feel it is tragically ironic that I stated in the last review that I felt that Yue meant more to this story than she seemed, because not only was I right, but Sokka would have to experience the heartbreak of a lifetime in the process. I mean..god, watching her kiss Sokka goodbye and then the life drop out of her is SO DEPRESSING. Hello children’s show, SHIT JUST GOT REAL.
As the moon returns to the sky and the Ocean spirit places Aang, who has decimated the Fire Nation ships, back on the city wall, we see the battle between Zuko and Zhao reach it’s climactic peak as Zuko quickly gains the upper hand. But neither could have predicted that the Moon would return to the sky, and I gaped as the Ocean spirit grabbed Zhao and pulled him underwater. The scene is even given another context because both Zuko and Aang were willing to save those who were their enemies, but in this case, Zhao refused that help. I mean….HE’S DEAD, RIGHT? Oh my god, this show is so intense.
I was not at all prepared for this. I’m still reeling from a mixture of sensations, from the joy of Aang’s victorious change into the Avatar state, to completely and utterly depressed at the loss of Princess Yue. While there is a bit of a celebratory vibe at the end of the episode, since we learn that Master Pakku is going to head to the Southern Water Tribe and Aang has infused the whole nation with that hope he spoke of episodes ago, I also cannot ignore the looming sadness of it all. I wonder how this is going to affect Sokka, who may have experience his first love and his first loss of that love in just a matter of days. I worry about what the future of the battle against the Avatar will bring, as the very last scene of the episode shows us Zuko’s unnamed sister, who looks rather ~sinister~ and ~badass~.
Yet, while I also know that I am unprepared for the twists and turns to come, I am ecstatic about just how much I’ve grown to love this series. This is some fantastic, smart, and emotional storytelling, and I cannot wait to watch more.
(Tomorrow, I will continue on with season two, but I will post predictions for season two at the beginning of the review because now I have some sense of the show’s themes and focus and characters. Party!)
- I could not help but laugh at the fact that Hahn failed immediately at his mission to infiltrate and assassinate Admiral Zhao.
- Admiral Zhao used to work in the Earth Kingdom??? WHAT?
- Hei Bai!!!!!!!!!!
- OK, I COULD NOT BE THE ONLY ONE TO NOTICE THAT THE END OF SEASON ONE IS JUST LIKE THE END OF THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Right??? Look how they’re placed! Fuck, I wish I could screenshot both scenes.
- “A man needs his rest.” Can I start shipping Zuko/Iroh for purely non-sexual reasons? My god, that man is so affectionate and caring. Why is he not my uncle. 🙁 🙁 🙁
- “The spirits gave me a vision when Yue was born. I saw a beautiful, brave young woman become the moon spirit. I knew this day would come.” “You must be proud.” “So proud. And sad.” MY CREYS.
- my god so unprepared for season two.